Dan Bilefsky contributed from Brussels.
Fifteen years after ethnic conflict exploded in the western Balkans, Montenegro voted by a bare margin to separate from Serbia in what may be the last phase in redrawing the contentious borders of the region.
The decision would dissolve what was left of the remaining republics of the six that formed Yugoslavia during the Communist era. Its secession from Serbia could pave the way for a very different agreement under international auspices for the Albanian- dominated province of Kosovo to split formally from Serbia in coming months.
The voters of Montenegro, the smallest of Yugoslavia's six former republics, decided by the narrowest of margins in a heavy turnout. The government said that with results in from all but 49 of 1,100 polling stations, 55.4 percent of voters favored independence. That was just four-tenths of a percentage point more than was necessary to pass the referendum under rules agreed on by the government and the European Union, which said it would respect the results of the election.
Parties opposed to independence demanded a recount. Serbia, though, seemed to accept the vote, grudgingly, recognizing that the Constitution of the uneasy Serbia and Montenegro federation permits secession.
Once the full results are established, the government in Podgorica is expected to push for a meeting of Parliament to enact enabling legislation. Government officials predicted that approval by a two-thirds majority that is required for such a change would be a formality.
Montenegro would then be able to seek international recognition and a seat at the United Nations and other international institutions.
The votes disappointed a substantial minority of the population of just 650,000, many of them Serb. But the union with Serbia has been unhappy. Since 1997, the prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, has distanced this mountainous nation from Serbia. The two now share control of the army and foreign service, but little else. In Serbia on Monday, there was a reluctant acceptance that Djukanovic's supporters had succeeded, although some media outlets suggested that the referendum had not been fought on equal terms. Djukanovic is the only Balkan leader to have clung to power throughout the break-up of Yugoslavia, and he campaigned avidly for the referendum. "Milo's majority is questionable," ran a headline in Serbia's conservative newspaper Politika. "One can conclude that the sovereigntists won, but no one can tell by how many votes," Aleksandar Simic, an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia, was quoted as saying by the newspaper. Simic's office said neither he nor a government spokesman could give any further comment until the complete vote results were confirmed.
Serbia could choose to make Montenegro's separation more complicated by disputing such issues as debt and federally owned property.
"The risk is they could do it out of spite," said a Western diplomat who was monitoring the referendum in Podgorica. A mechanism already exists, dating to 1998 when the four previous breakaway republics Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia negotiated issues left over by the Yugoslav breakup.
But most international observers doubt Serbia will obstruct Montenegro. "It would be a bit like flogging a dead horse. They have enough problems with other issues," said the Western diplomat. Those "other issues" may be much harder for Serbia to solve.
Belgrade is under enormous international pressure to surrender one of the region's leading war crimes suspects, Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992 to 1995 conflict in Bosnia. Its negotiations on closer ties with the European Union have been put on hold until his arrest.
More difficult is the question of Kosovo, the UN-controlled province that is formally a part of Serbia. British and American diplomats have hinted that they believe that Kovoso, with its ethnic Albanian majority, should be granted independence this year. Serbia refuses to countenance the idea. Djukanovic repeatedly cited Serbia's strained relations with the international community as a principal argument for independence. But most analysts here ascribe his victory to his dominance of the media and the orchestrated rallying of Montenegro's diaspora and minorities to his cause.
While most broadcasters tried to give balanced coverage of the referendum, the prime minister was able to dominate television during the campaign, simply in his capacity as leader of the government. Figures from the border police suggest that Montenegro's diaspora had a decisive role in passing the referendum. About 16,000 Montenegrins from abroad returned in the three days before the election, a number equal to 3 percent of total voter turnout.
"I think the diaspora is probably the major decisive factor," said Mihailo Jovovic, political editor of the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti. "I think we made a difference," said Began Cekic, a demolition expert from Brooklyn, New York, who returned to his parent's home in Gusinje in the north of the republic. His friends and neighbors, a mixture of Montenegrins, Albanians and Muslim Slavs, celebrated late into the night, waving Montenegrin, Albanian and Bosnian flags.
Hundreds of them, he said, came back to vote from the New York region. "I think we gave them the yes vote," Cekic, an ethnic Albanian, said in a telephone interview. EU officials said privately that the bloc, which had previously been resistant to new independent states forming in the Balkans, now viewed the independence of Montenegro as inevitable. They said the EU remained determined to retain its political neutrality in the region and had no choice but to respect a democratic vote. An EU development spokesman, Altafaj Tardio, said the commission would begin drafting a proposal to start talks on a separate aid package for Montenegro.
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, said the bloc would respect the outcome but that it was too soon to discuss whether and when both sides could begin to discuss closer ties; NATO made similar comments. "Let's wait and see," Solana said. "I think probably it's much more important that they begin talking among themselves."